How Much Of Our Waste Stream Are We Recycling?

Dear EarthTalk: How much of our waste in the U.S. is recycled compared to what is “disposed of”? Who keeps track of this?

—Anita Knight, Wheaton, IL

Roughly 30 percent of the trash generated in the United States is recovered and recycled or composted. About 14 percent is incinerated, and 56 percent ends up buried in landfills, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency”s (EPA) Office of Municipal Solid Waste.

The EPA reports on a wide variety of solid wastes, including paper and cardboard, glass, metals, plastics, rubber, leather, textiles, wood, food, yard trimmings and inorganic wastes from residents, businesses and institutions. The agency has witnessed the amount of waste produced in the U.S. rapidly increase over the past four decades.

The EPA”s last study, conducted in 2001, estimated that 229 million tons of wastes were produced that year, or approximately 4.4 pounds per person per day. That”s a 260 percent increase in tonnage from the 88 million tons of waste produced in 1960, which was about 2.7 pounds per person per day. Bearing in mind that U.S. population was 179 million in 1960 but is 292 million now (a 60% increase), it means that not only are there more Americans now—Americans are wasting more.

But there are some positive trends: In 1960, only 6.3 percent of total U.S. waste was recycled, only a fifth of what is being recycled today. And in a more recent years” comparison, some 68 million tons of waste were recycled or composted in 2001, compared to 34 million tons just 10 years earlier.

There has also been forward movement in paper recycling. According to the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry (TAPPI), we are well on our way toward recovering 50 percent of all paper used. More paper is now recovered in the U.S. than is sent to landfills.

There”s progress, say recycling advocates, but not enough: “I think that for certain materials—glass, plastic, and aluminum—we have not made much headway in the past few years,” says Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute. “The recycling rate for all containers has declined over the past eight years, partly because the financial incentive to recycle aluminum cans has not increased with inflation,” she says.

CONTACT: The U.S. EPA”s Office of Solid Waste, (800) 424-9346, www.epa.gov/epaoswer/non-hw/muncpl/index.htm

Container Recycling Institute, (703) 276-9800, www.container-recycling.org

TAPPI, (800) 332-8686, www.tappi.org